With its focus on how photojournalism affects our perception of human rights and human rights violations, The Photographers Gallery’s exhibition Human Rights Human Wrongs was always going to be thought-provoking. A wide selection of photographs were on display, depicting human rights violations and struggles from the twentieth century including images from the Civil Rights movement in America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, closer to home, the troubles in Belfast during the 1980s. Questions about photojournalistic practice were brought into sharp focus through provocative images of child soldiers or mothers mourning the loss of their children. How does an individual take these photographs without intervening? Do they comfort their subjects afterwards? Do they ask permission? Is it exploitative to photograph protestors being wrongfully arrested and then walk away? How important is it for people in countries unaffected by these events to know about them?
It is vital to record and spread awareness of human rights violations around the world both to encourage aid to those in need and to remind us how precious our human rights are, and this was very much the message of this exhibition. Photographs were interspersed with excerpts from the Human Rights Act, highlighting the importance of free speech, freedom of religion and the right to be recognised as a person in the eyes of the law. These images were intended to shock, to bring home the importance of our freedom and promoting the freedom of others.
Fortunately for the future of humanitarianism this is not the case. Anyone who has seen footage from Syria, Ukraine, Russia, Hong Kong, or America of late will know that the images of suffering from these places are still very powerful. It was the specific events that the gallery had chosen to illustrate its point that caused the exhibition to lose its impact. Whilst nobody doubts the immense importance of the Civil Rights Movement, its very notoriety and the ubiquity of the images from it lessen the impact. Similarly whilst the civil war in El Salvador and the troubles in 1920s Palestine were bloody and violent periods in history, they are not current events. The viewer is thus distanced from the situation and their response diluted. The question becomes about how awful human rights violations were then, when really it should be about how awful human rights violations are now. Images from Selma in 1965 are still powerful and have an important story to tell (as illustrated by the recent film Selma) but photographs from Ferguson or North Charleston would have been far more powerful and thought-provoking.
The role of photography in portraying human rights violations is an important one to consider but this role has changed considerably since the twentieth century. We should be asking a different set of questions. Has the Internet affected the portrayal of human rights violations? How do you photograph racial discrimination when signs in front of water fountains are not there to illustrate it? How do you photograph attacks on the LGBT community in Russia under intense censorship laws? How do you distinguish between a photojournalist and someone with an iPhone? When asking questions about the effect of photography on the future of human rights this exhibition would have done better to include photographs from our present as well as our past.
Photograph: BBC World Service, Youtube